Ancient Greece

Figure 1.--Here is one view of a Greek classroom. This picture is from a fascinating 1979 book titled 'An Ancient Greek Town' by R.J. Unstead. It's from a 'See Inside' series of educational books--an especially good resource for school libraries. We are not sure how accurate the depictions here are. We think the class set up and use of wax tablets is reasonably accuate, if a little idealized. We are less surte about the accuracy of the tunic-like gatment shown here. Also notice the head bands. Many sources describe Greek boys as wearing simple cloths around their waists. Here the boys wear tunics covering their torsos or part of their torsos. We are not sure how common that was. Click on the image for a diiferent modern view.

HBC has little information on ancient Greece. Historians report the ancient Greeks considered children to be miniature adults. There is no indication that the Greeks regarded children as anything different from small-sized adults. By the time a child was about 13 years old, he or she was considered an adult citizen in every respect. Alexander was, for example, involved in military engagements at age 12. There were differences from city to city, especially with Sparta. There were, however, many similarities. Boys and girls were reared very differently. Plato discusses the education of children in The Republic. Boys were educated separately for their future responsibilities as citizens of the state. Women had a different role and have been described as little above slaves. Girls were informally educated in the home by their mothers. Children of both genders often wore no clothing at all when they were very young. There does not appear to have been any specialized garments for children before they began wearing adult garments. Boys spent a lot of time naked in athletic training.


The democratic city state is the concept that most have of ancient Greece. This was, however, only one phase of Greece history. Greeks in the Mycenean age were organized into small, waring kingdoms. This era is not well understood. The Greek kingdoms appear to have collapsed and the populations abandoned urban centers about 1200 and 1100 BC. For a long period of about 400-500 years, Greeks society was based in tribal groups. Some but not all of the tribes shifted to a nomadic lifestyle. Some historians call this era the Greek Dark Age. The Greek tribl grouos by about 700 BC had begun to coalese into larger political groupings. Trade linkiages between these groups increased in inortance. To accoimodate the growing trade, marketplaces began to appear in villages and the evolving political structures came to be called a polis or city state.Greece during the Classical period was composed of independent city-states, the largest and most important was Athens, followed by Sparta and Thebes. Although these city states were relatively small a fierce spirit of independence and desire for freedom enabled the Greeks to defeat the massive Persian armies and navies in some of the most notable battles in human history. The Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered most of the then known world and proceeded to Hellenize large areas of the easter Mediterrean. Greece in 146 BC fell to the Romans. Large numbers of Greeks were enslaved. Many wealthy Greeks used learned Greek slaves to teach their children. The Emperor Constantine in 330 AD moved the Capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, founding the Eastern Roman Empire which was to become known as the Byzantine Empire or Byzantium. One of Byzantium's many achievements was to transform the linguistic and cultural heritage of Ancient Greece into a vehicle for the new Christian civilization.

City States

Greece was divided into a number of different independent city states. A Greek city state was known as the "polis". These ciy states were an important political innovation with began to appear about 800 BC. These city states appeared on the Greek peninsula, the mainland, and the coast of Asia Minor or modern Turkey. Each important Greek city was an independent state. They controlled varrying territories around their city. There were alliances and associations between these cities. Many founded colonies. The dominate city state for much of Greek history was Athens. Although Athens was of enormous impact to western civilization, it and the other city states were not large. Athens was the largest and at the height of its power had a population of only 0.2 million. Thebes and Sparta were also important and there were several other smaller city states. Many modern concepts of ancient Greece are based on available information about Athens. There were many similarities between the different cities of the Greek world. There were, however, important differences. Sparta contrasted sharply with Athens and the rest of the Greek city states. Sparta was the largest of the city states in area, but not in population. It was militarily important because of its social structure. While a few city states were well known. There were as many as 1,500 such entities, many extremely small and would hardly be seen as cities or even towns in modern terms.


Anvient Greece produced many of the great figures in history. This inclued not on;ly statesman and military figures, but the thinkers that layed the foundation for Western Civilization, both philosophers and dramatists. Greek thinkers created the very idea of freedom and then dealt with the consequwnces of freedom -- consequences that seem very modern concerns. And with freedom we see amazing artistic and scienific advances. Greek thinkers began to develop very modern mathematical anbd scientific insights, although more from a phiolosophical approach tham real science. Notabvly most of these figures were Athenians oe moved to Athens to participate in the Golden Age. Also notable is the lack of Spartans except for military commanders on the list of notable Greecks.Also notable is the absence of important Greeks after the glow of the Golden Age faded. While relatively brief, these men and citizens of Athens and othge small city states created a culture that served as the foundation of the pan-Meditrranran culture enshrining reason and freedom as the central values on which Western civilzation was built.

Aeschylus (525-455)

Aeschylus writing during theGold Era of Greece was it great trgic playwright.

Alexander the Great (356323)

Aleabder, prince anf king of of Macedinia, is vonsiderd by ,any yto be the greatest military commander of all time. He also had promise as atatesmen, intending to create an expsive view of citizenship in his new empire, something the Romans wouk eventually adopt. He died, however, a very young man, unable to fulfill his promise as a stateman. >br>

Archimedes (287-212)

Archemimes was one of the world's great mathmatixian and inventor.

Aristophanes (c445-386

Aristophanes after Athens defeat in he Phelophenesian War turned from the great tragic themes and became Athens great comic playwright.

Aristotle (385-322)

Arustotle is one of the great philosphers if not the greatest of all timm. He was alsp Alexder's tutor.

Epicurus (341-270)

Epicurus was another important Greek philosopher. Writng well fter Grece's Golden Age, prived bery influenti;l in the rising Roman Rpublic.

Pericles (495-429)

Pericles was one of the great statesmen of all time and guided Athens during its Goldan Age. He saw Athensough the third and climrtic Persin invasion.

Thucydides (c455-395)

Thucydides was a general and great historian of Greece's Golden Age.


Greek city state economies as were most economies in the ancuent world were primarily based on agriculture. This varied from city to city, but agiculture was important most city states. Greece is not, however, a country blessed with an abundance of fertile soil. Greece is a peninsula, thus it is only natural tht the Greeks with poor agricultural harvests would turn to the sea to supplement their agricultural production. The Greeks from an early point in their history excelled as mainers and traders. It is widely believed that the raiders which the Egyptians described as the sea People were raiding Greeks (1300-1000 BC). Maritime craftsmanship and commerce developed (6th century BC) and became an increasingly important segment of the Greek economy. They sailed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and played an important role in markets there. Greek sailors were not only merchants, but engaged in a range of economic activities, including fishing, raiding, and what today would be called piracy. They also founded colonies which began as trading posts. Greek traders not only sold Greek products like pottery, wine, olive oil, and metal products but traded in products bought in foreign ports as well. War was an important part of Greek economic life. Greek city states conquered other city states and forced them to pay tribute. The most notable was Sparta which conquered Messenia and based their economy on Helot slave labor. Other city states had economies based on very large slve populations, people largely captured in war and their descendents. Greek sailors might work as mercenaries, hiring out both themselves and their ships to fight for pay. Countries like Egypt were often in need of sea support.


The Greek tribes moved south into the Peloponesus Peninsula as a result of the decline of the Minoan civilization. The result was a kind of dark age until advanced civilization gradually developed. Ancient Greece was the location of almost constant warfare among city states, a kind of perpetual war. These battles between hoplites became almost ritualized. They fought with 30 lb bronze breast plates, 20 lb shields, and 8 ft spears. They fought in phalanxes 8 rows deep. These battles were bloody, but normally short in duration. [Kagan] The first united action came in face of a common danger. The occassion was the first great conflict between the Western world and the East was the effort by Persian to add the Greeks on the western fringe of their territory to their empire--the Persian Wars. It was at the time of the Persian Wars that the Athenians pefected their system of democracy. The defeat of the Persians and the Golden Age of Greece can be seen as the birth of Western Civilization. The conflict between Soaeta and Athens resulted in the Peloponesian War, one of the epic struggles of the ancient world. Greece in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. spread its culture through the Western Mediterranean and Near East. The agent was of course Alexander the Great and his conquests.


The areato the immediate northeast of Greece was Macedonia. Greek legend credits Hellenic emigrants from Argos with founding what would become Macedonia (8th century BC). The Greeks did not viewd the Macedonians as Hellenes, but as one of the barbarian people outside of Greece. This is one of the few aspects of ancient Macedonia which is known with any surity. Ethnically the Macedons appear to be similar to the Greeks, the designation as barbarians was a cultural matter. Ethnically they apper to have been related to the Illyrians. The original Argive colony grew in importance in the area around Mount Bermius. Perdiccas, one of the original Argive colonists acquired political power and is considerd to have founded the royal line. [Herodotus] There are legends naming earlier kijngs. The early history of Macedonia is obsure and largely srouded in legend. [Rawlinson, pp. 164-65.] Macedonia remained a kingdom and did not make the transition to a democratic city state like the Greeks to the south. The Kingdom was a minor factor on the northern fringe of the Greek world until the reign of Philip II, (359336 BC). Philip transformed economically backward Macedonia from a weak, disunitd kngdom to a military powerhouse. [Worthington] Philip seized territory in neignoring states, including the Paeonians, Thracians, and Illyrians. He annexed the regions of Pelagonia and Southern Paeonia. These conquests were the results of Philip's military acumen. Philip is often given aminorrole in histories focusing on Alexander, but it is Philip that built the army that his son Alexander would so famously use. Philip made modifications of the traditional Greek hoplite force that made it even more effective. The most important changes were first the hetairoi, a well armoured heavy cavalry and second adding more light infantry. These additions gave the core hoplite force more flexibility and greater ability tomresond to enenmy movements. Philip also worked on weaponry for gis army. He lengthened the spear and shrank the shield of the main infantry force, this gave it a greater offensive punch. The Macedonian kingdom under Philip and then Alexander first conquered Greece, weakened by the Peloponesian War (431-404 BC) , and then under Alexander conquered much of the known world. It was Alexander and Macedonia that would expand Helenic Culture far beyond the eastern Mediterraean.

Concept of Childhood

HBC has little information on ancient Greece. Historians report the ancient Greeks considered children to be miniature adults. There is no indication that the Greeks regarded children as anything different from small-sized adults. By the time a child was about 13 years old, he or she was considered an adult citizen in every respect. Alexander was, for example, involved in military engagements at age 12.


Boys and girls were reared very differently. Plato discusses the education of children in The Republic. Boys were educated separately for their future responsibilities as citizens of the state. Women had a different role and have been described as little above slaves. Girls were informally educated in the home by their mothers.


Greece appears to have been the first ancient society in whuch the ordinary people were educated. This goes along with the idea that the population were citizens and not subjects of a monarchial ruler. The purpose of education in Greek city states was to create productive citizens as well as soldiers capable of defending the city in time of war which was fairly common, primarily because of difference between the many competing states. There was no single Greek education system, but the system with develoed in Athens was very influential, affecting the educatiin in other city states. Younger boys were taught at home by their mother or in the case of more affluent families by a slave--almost always a male slave. While at home boys and girls might be taught together. At about age 6 years the boys' formal education began. School was not compulsory in Athens and other Greek city states, but most boys at least attended primary school. Here the primary factor was economics. Boys from poor families might not attend school, especially if they lived in country far from available schools. There were both neighborhood primary schools funded by the state as weand private schools. This varied somewhat among the different city schools. Boys from about 6-14 years of age were educated at these schools. There were few actual books or scrolls at these schools. Printing did not yet exist. As a result actual written material was very expensive, not something school boys would have possessed. As a result there was a great deal of memory work at Greek schools. All teachers were men. Boys were taken to school by slaves called paidagogos who also helped with their studies. (Our modern word pedagogue, teacher, comes from this ancient Greek word). The boys at school did not have desks. The had pens with a sharp end, for writing on their wax tablets and a rounded end for rubbing out their work for another lesson. The abacus was used in math lessons. Women were not trusted with such an important task. The teachers read out material or lectured to students. The boys did not have paper on whuch they could take notes. They had to menorize. There were wax tablets and rulers to help with writing and math. The curiculum varied from city to city, but there were many common elements. One of the most important was the epic tales of Homer told in poertry. Another important element was leaning to play the lyre. The flute was also played, but the lyre was most important. Teacher had considerable discretion as to what else was taught and how. Subjects included art, athletics-sports, dancing, drama, government, history, mathamatics, music, oration, reading, and writing. The curriculum is notable for its similarity to modern education. The basic difference seems to be the greater emphasis that the Greeks gave to the arts. After their basic education, some boys at about age 14-15 began attended a higher school for an additional 4 years. This varied among city states. Boys from affluentbimportant families were the mist likely to contiue their education. Less affluent city states were less likely to have developed secondary systems and boys were more likely to complete their educatiins at about 14-5 years of age. The curriculum at the primary and secondary level was similar. One major difference was a grear attention to developing military skills. This basic division of primary and secomdary education is today standard in modern education systems. After they turned 18 years of age, boys became citizens and pledged to defend their city. They began 2 years of compulsory military training and service. After completing their military service, youth from affluent families night attend sports academies. There were no schools for girls in almost all city states. Many girls, however, did learn to read and write at home where they were taught by their mothers ior household slaves. In additiin to reading, writing, music, dancing, and other subjects, girls were usually taught cooking and other domestic skills. While diffeences existed, mosrt Greek city states followed this basic approach. And it was the Athenian system of education that served as the basis for the formal Roman educational system which developed in the mid-2nd century BC after the Roman conquest of Greece. The basic outlyer was Sparta which developed a very different education system. Classical studies also dominated Western education and is stillminfluential today.


Philosophy was essentially invdnted by the Greeks. Philosophy was different than our modern concept. The Greeks saw phiolophy as 'the love of wisdom'. And this generated a very modern outlook. Greek phiosophy , encompased what we would today call science and mathematics It is quite incredible why it was that the Greeks, a narrow slice of humanity at the time, gave birth to not only to phiospphy, science, and mathematics. Of course there were thinkers and tecnically competent people in other societie, but it was the Greeks who began to approach these subjects in an organized, modern way. Any science pr math text book will begin with the Greeks. One has go ask why. That is not entirely clear, but it appears tied up with the fact that the Greeks became dissatisfied with the supernatural and mythical explanations of reality that had dominated the ancient world. Unheard of creative ideas came from Greece. A variety of Greek thinkers began to suspect that there was a rational order to the natural world and that man was a causative factor and not a passive subject cintrolled by events. This is the essence of Western civilization and why Greece is the cradle of Western civilization. The Persian wars created great domestic strife as did the increasing conflict between Athens and Sparta. The result was political and social upheaval. The result as in many other times of strife was the generation of a range of new ideas, especilly in Athens (5th century BC). A major flow of new ideas came from the Ionian Islands as creative minds moved into the Attic peninsula. Athens with its more open soiciety and prosperous economy became the intellectual and artistic center of Greece. The Greeks began to question long held brliefs about the natural world. A century of war caused the Greeks to question their traditiional religious beliefs. The Gods and goddesses were no longer seen with the same reverence as had been the case earlier. The crises and experiences from the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars were stark instructors. The Greeks began to see that it was man's actions that determine their destiny and not 'Moira'. The Greeks also began asking questions about right and wrong and other fundamental questions. were called into question. Greek philoopher taught and wrote. And the ideas were vividly expressed in drama, both tragedy and comedy, the beginnings of Western literture. Greek philosophy was dominated by three very famous thinkers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. All three were produced by Athens and they all knew each other. There were important philosphers before Socrates, but Socretes (470-399 BC) was the giant of Greek philosophers, although he never wrote down his ideas. Socretes saw himself as a seeke and purveyor of wisdom. He was of humble origins. His father was a mason and his mother a midwife. That is important because it shows how even the children of non-elire socities could become educated and egage in the word of ideas. This would have been unlikely anywhere outside of the Greek world. And his methods would seem strange to us today. He wondered the streets of Athens, seeking to learn valuable information from ordinary people. Socretes saw philosophy as addressing the problems of ordinsry people, facing the issues of right and wrong in every day life. One author writes, "Far from teaching guilded youthhow to dominate the assembly or persuade Athenian voters to elect them strategos, Socrates liked to talk to people of all classes and occupations. He said, 'I am a universalist,' using a word just coming into common currenvy. Cicero, who had read Plato, but who also had access to many works lost to us, summed up Socrates better than anyone eldse. 'Socrates,' he wrote, 'was the cfirst to callm Philosophy down from the skies, and establish her in the towns, and introduce her into people's homes, and force her to investigate ordinary life, ethics, good and evil.'" [Johnson] Plato was one of Socretes' students (around 400 BC). Socrates was forced to commit suiside (399 BC). It was Plato who first wrote down Socretes' ideas, added his own ideas and interpretation. Plato did not just wander the streets and mrkets as did Socrstes, but opened a school. Aristotle came to study at Plato's school, eventully founding his own school. Aristotle taught Alexander. Other philosophers followed, discussing the ideas of the three great early philosphers and coming up with their own ideas and interpretations. Three noted schools of philosophy developed (third century BC). They were the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicureans. Each of these schools generated the principal ideas and outlook of the Roman Empire. And the Helenistic ideas fused with Judeo-Christian ideas produced the foundation of Western civilization.


Greece is the first ancient civilization for which we have a full understanding of Slavery. This is a little complicated because unlike Rome, there was no unified state. Each city state had their own laws and in some cases like Sparta there were major differences with the rest if Greece. Our understanding of Athens is the most detailed, but a good bit is known about other city states as well. The Greek city states, despite their tradition of democracy, had economies which were to a substantial degree based on slavery. Some historians have described the Greeks as the first true slave society in history. Large scale Greek slavery emerged between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. Major slave markets developed in the larger city states (Athens, Rhodes, Corinth, Delos, and others). As many as a thousand slaves might be sold in a single day. This was in large measure determined by military action. After a particularly important engagement, a Greek city state like Athens might have as many as 20,000 captives to deal with. The institution of slavery, however, varied widely among the different city states. Athens and the other city states had what can be seen as slavery in the the standard form. Sparta was substantially different. The Spartan economy was based on labor performed by the helots. Some authors suggest that is more correct to refer to them as serfs. They were a conquered people, They did work on lrge estates run by the Spartans, but lived in family groups on hereditary land. They were required to turn over the bulk of their harvest to their Spartan master who was an absentee landholder. The rights of Greek slaves varied from city state to city state. This varied as to who owned them and the tasks assigned. Slaves were owned by both the state and idividuals. Conditions varied significantly. The mines owned by the state were worked by slaves. The state leased the mines to private proprietors who often drive the slaves savagely to maximize profits. Other state slaves were treated better. The best treated were 300 Scythian archers who somewhat strangely served as the Athens police force. Most Athenian slaves were privately owned. Most of these were employed as domestic servants. Freeborn Athenians did not work as domestics. The conditions of slavery for privately owned slaves was primarily determined by the relationship whuch developed with their masters. Here close relations were possible. Women might be used to care for the children and thus become trusted family retainers. They also might be used as concubines offering the opportunity to become emotionally close withe masters. Male slaves by take on the role of a steward and actually run the household.


Greeks wore very simple clothing. Linen clothing was common in the summer and woolen clothing in the winter. Clothing was mostly made in the home by the mother, daughters, and female slaves. Garments included simple tunics and warm cloaks, made of linen or wool. They we often dyed bright colors, but bleached white garments were also worn. Decorations were often distinctive to each city state. One garment created by the Greeks was the broad-brimmed hat. Some clothing historians believe that the Greek "petasos" was the first true hat--headwear with a complete brim. It was worn mostly hen traveling. It had a hin strap and could be worn hanging down the back. Children of both genders often wore no clothing at all when they were very young. There does not appear to have been any specialized garments for children before they began wearing adult garments. Boys spent a lot of time naked in athletic training.

Hair Styles

Greeks like other ancient peoples gave considerable attention to their hair. They curled their hair and arranged it in intricate styles. Prfumed waxes and lotions were used to style hair. Greek men wore short hair. Beards were common, although soldiers usually shaved so as not to give enemies something that couldbe grabbd. The barber shop was an important social institution in Greece. It was at the barber shop that Greek men discussed popuar topics. Some were the same as discussed today, such as politics, news, and sports. Philosophy was also widely discused. I am not sure how boys wore their hair. Greek women wore their hair long. Often the long hair was braided which were both coiled on the head or wore in ponytails. Greek women commonly or ribbon or metal hairbands. Greeks mostly had dark hair. Blond hair was considerd attractive. Some women bleached their hair. I'm not sure how girls wore their hair.


Greek mythology has played a major role in Greek culture and through it the development of both Roman and Christian culture. Some art historians believe that a basic understanding of mythology, especially Greek mythology, is esential to understand Western art, nusic and literature. These images of gods are an important reflection of a society's concept of the universe and life. [Leeming]


Drama was an important literary form in the classical era. Theater was popular ancient Greece. I'm not sure about its origins. Some of these plays have survived to the modern age, but tragically many Greek plays are lost. We have tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides from the Greek period. Probably the most famous of these is "Oedipus Rex" (Oedipus the King)--a tragedy about a royal figure who unwittingly killed his own father and committed incest with his mother, then put his own eyes out when he learned of the horrors he had committed. Aristotle wrote a famous critical work, entitled The Poetics, in which he holds up the "Oedipus Rex" of Sophocles as the ideal tragedy, the example to be imitated. Greek dramatists competed with each other in play-writing contests, the winner being highly honored. The plays were often performed at a pagan festival such as the Feast Day of Dionysus. The actors performed using large masks through which they spoke to outdoor audiences seated, usually, in amphitheatres with seats in a semicircle and rising row by row (as in a modern stadium). The masks (in Latin referred to as "personae") functioned as megaphones as well as helping audiences to distinguish characters from each other. Hence our modern term, "Dramatis Personae" (meaning the list of characters in a play), derives from the use of actors using masks during performance. Greek theater faced a number of technical problems, especially the challenge of sound and light. The Greeks thus performed their dramas outdoors in specially designed ampitheaters with semi-circular tiered seating. As far as I know, children were very little involved in Greek drama.


Ancient Greeks rather like the modern world loved sport. This is a very modern behavior. Sport did not become a major activity in our modern world until the late-19th century. A major difference is that for the Greeks, sports primarily meant indvidual rather than team sports. There were, however, some team sports. As far as we know, Greece was the first ancient civilization in which sport was a major actib\vity and any free citizen could participate. Almost all city states of any size had publically supported gymnasiums where citizens could gathered to train and relax. This was primarily males, both youth and men. The Greeks attached greatimportance to a healthy body. Men and boys commonly exercuzed and practised sports every day. They both enjoyed sports and saw athletic activity as a way of staying fit. Anthere was a relationship between sports and military training. Greek soldiers needed considerable stammina to march long distances and to carry heavy equipment. Most Greek soldiers were foot soldiers. They had to march long distances, carrying all their heavy equipment, and then begin the fight with the enemy. The Greeks put on four national sports festivals where athletes from the various city states competed. Great prestige was attached to winning in these games. The most prestigious of these events was of course the Olympic Games. The name comes from the fact that they were consucted at Olympia, every four years. They were held in honour of Zeus, thevchief Greek god. The Olympics began with . sacrifices of grain, wine, and lambs to Zeus.


Greek law has not survived as a juridical system. It never developed a class of legal specialists. Justice in Greek city states was administered by lay administrators or in popular tribunals, commonly with large assemblies. Much of Roman civilization developed on a Greek cultural base. Law was a rare area which the Romans developed on their own and interestingly perhaps their greatest contributiion to Western civilization.



Johnson, Paul. Socrates (2011), 224p.

Leaming, David. From Olympus to Camelot: The World of Europeam Mythology (Oxford University Press, 2003), 210p.

Rawlinson, M.A. Ancient History of Chaldaea, Assyria, Media, Babylonia, Lydia, Phoenicia, Syria, Judaea, Egypt, Carthage, Persia, Greece, Macedonia, Parthia, and Rome (The Colonial Press: New York, 1899).

Sealey, Raphael. History of the Greek City States (University of California Press, 1977).

Worthington, Ian. By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire (2014), 416p.

Unstead, R.J.An Ancient Greek Town (Grieswood and Dempsey, 1979). This was part of the "See Inside series" of educational books.


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Created: September 16, 2002
Last updated: 1:06 AM 8/1/2014